Greetings from Fort Myers

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Hrbek Road.jpgPro tip: when the GPS in your car tells you to take a boring interstate and the map in your hand shows you a nice, winding rural route, follow the map every time. Interstates are death.

The trip across the state to Fort Myers was a lot of fun. No traffic, nice weather, a big lake and lots of ranches where cattle grazed amongst palm trees. I stopped and had lunch at some little roadside joint with a sign that said “best food in Okeechobee County.” I didn’t ask if it was the only food in Okeechobee County. That would have been rude.  Good burger, though.

I made it to Fort Myers mid-afternoon, checked into my hotel and decided to run by Hammond Stadium — spring training home of the Twins — to pick up my media credentials for today’s game. The place was mostly empty — the Twins were up in Sarasota playing the Orioles — but the gate was open so I drove on in to what may be the most beautiful ballpark parking lot I’ve ever seen.  There’s a grassy mall lined with palm trees leading to the main gate, with nicely landscaped parking rows on either side. Each row has a street sign, naming it after a Twins great.  As you can see from the pic, I parked on Hrbek Road.  Strangest thing happened though: when I thought I was safely parked, a big dude came over and wrestled me off my space. Cop standing nearby didn’t do anything about it. Huh.

I walked into the empty ballpark and wandered around a bit.  Port St. Lucie and Tradition Field remind me of an office park. Hammond Stadium screams spring training. It’s really a beautiful place. There’s the landscaping, sure, but the facade has this Churchill Downs thing going which walks that line between cheesy and quaint that characterizes all good minor league ballparks.  Inside some men were attending to the infield while the outfield grass was being watered. I sat down on a seat near the third base dugout for a bit, smelling the grass, enjoying the sun and thanking the fates that I get paid to do this.

After a few minutes of bliss I found an elevator which led to the Twins’ offices. It was mostly empty, but a fellow named Dustin Morse was still working. My credential had already been sent down to will call, it seems, and will call was closed for the day, but Dustin was nice enough to fill out a new one for me so I could get to the ballpark early this morning before the ticket booth opened up. After that he gave me the lay of the land at Hammond and patiently answered my questions despite the fact that he probably had 100 more important things to be doing. Great guy, Dustin. And friendly with the sabermetric media too!

I left Hammond, and decided to take a drive down to the beaches, which were emptying out for the day. I met three baseball fans walking along the beach. The first two were a young couple wearing Cardinals’ t-shirts. I chatted with them a bit. They’re from central Illinois and are down here to follow the Cards around (they had been to the Red Sox-Cards game here in Fort Myers that afternoon).  Seems they come to spring training every year. It’s the wife’s obsession more than the husbands, they said. I’m a happily married man and I’m not violent by nature, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have thoughts of bumping the dude off and taking his woman to be my bride.

I met the second one in the parking lot near the beach when I decided to play good samaritan and gave him my little pre-paid parking ticket that still had some time left on it so he wouldn’t have to buy one of his own.  I had on a Giants’ t-shirt and he said “your giving me this may make me have to rethink Giants’ fans.”  I told him I wasn’t a Giants fan. I just liked the shirt.  He said he was relieved to hear that, because he really doesn’t want to have to start liking Giants fans, what with him being a Dodgers guy.  And no, he’s not happy that the Dodgers train in Arizona now.

Back to the ballpark first thing this morning. Twins vs. Cardinals at 1:05 PM.  I’ll be checking in throughout the day. Also if you’re on Twitter, follow me at @craigcalcaterra. I have a tendency to bring the snark during games if that’s your bag.

Concerns over Jon Lester’s throwing ability much ado about nothing

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 20: Jon Lester #34 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game five of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images)
Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Going into Thursday night’s NLCS Game 5, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts planned to have his team be annoying and distracting on the base paths for Cubs starter Jon Lester. Lester, you see, has a hard time making throws when he’s not pitching from the rubber, as seen here.

The Dodgers got an immediate opportunity to test their strategy, as Enrique Hernandez drew a four-pitch walk to start the game in the bottom of the first inning. Hernandez was taking leads between 15 and 25 feet, just taunting Lester to throw over to first base. Lester never did. And despite being given the luxury of such a large lead, Hernandez never attempted to steal second base.

It ended up costing the Dodgers a run. After Justin Turner struck out, Corey Seager lined a single to center field. Hernandez, large lead and all, should’ve been well on his way to third base, but he settled for staying at second base. Carlos Ruiz then flied out to right field on what should’ve been a sacrifice fly. Hernandez instead just advanced to third. Howie Kendrick grounded out to end the inning with the Dodgers having scored no runs.

In the bottom of the second inning with two outs, Joc Pederson dropped down a bunt, but Lester was able to field it and make a bounce-throw to Anthony Rizzo at first base to end the inning. Lester stared angrily into the Dodgers’ dugout as he walked off the field. If it were me, I’d have been glaring angrily not because the opposing team was attempting to exploit my weakness, but because the strategy is so poor.

The bunting would continue in the seventh inning as first baseman and noted power hitter Adrian Gonzalez tried to sneak a bunt past Lester on the right side of the infield. Second baseman Javier Baez was able to scoop it up and fire to first. Gonzalez was initially ruled safe, but the call was overturned upon replay review.

Lester countered the Dodgers’ bunting and greedy lead-taking by just pitching his game. He went seven innings, allowing just one run on five hits and a walk with six strikeouts on 108 pitches. The Cubs went on to win 8-4, taking a 3-2 lead in the NLCS. A worthy consideration for the National League Cy Young Award based on his regular season performance, Lester now has a 0.86 ERA in 21 innings spanning three starts this postseason. Turns out, the yips isn’t debilitating if you’re really good at your main job.

Cubs swat their way past the Dodgers 8-4 in NLCS Game 5

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 20:  Addison Russell #27 of the Chicago Cubs hits a two-run home run in the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game five of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

During the regular season, the Cubs had the second-best offense in baseball behind the Rockies, averaging 4.99 runs per game. It was the best after debiting the Rockies for playing in Coors Field. There was no way, after getting shut out in NLCS Games 2 and 3, that the offense was going to stay dormant much longer. They broke out for 10 runs in a Game 4 victory on Wednesday night. They scored eight more to beat the Dodgers 8-4 in Game 5, taking a 3-2 NLCS lead.

The Cubs took an early 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning when leadoff batter Dexter Fowler greeted Kenta Maeda with a single to center field. He’d come around to score on a one-out double by Anthony Rizzo who, like teammate Addison Russell, hadn’t hit much until breaking out in Game 4.

Starter Jon Lester was able to silence the Dodgers’ offense despite their strategy of attempting bunts and taking big leads, knowing Lester has trouble throwing when it’s not from the pitching rubber. They managed just one run, coming around in the fourth inning to knot the game at 1-1 when Howie Kendrick doubled, stole third base, and scored on an Adrian Gonzalez ground out.

Ultimately, Lester lasted seven innings, holding the Dodgers to five hits and a walk with six strikeouts on 108 pitches. Addison Russell allowed him to leave with a lead, slugging a two-run home run off of reliever Joe Blanton in the sixth to break the 1-1 tie.

The Cubs tacked on plenty of insurance in the top of the eighth against reliever Pedro Baez, which proved to be rather necessary. Russell reached on an error by Baez, Willson Contreras singled, and Albert Almora, Jr. moved both runners up a base on a sacrifice bunt. Dexter Fowler then hit a single to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, but Baez didn’t break to cover first base. Gonzalez wasn’t able to beat Fowler to the bag, allowing the Cubs’ fourth run to score. Kris Bryant hit a weak grounder to third base and he was able to beat that out as well, pushing across another run in the process. Anthony Rizzo lined out, but Baez prolonged the inning by walking Ben Zobrist. Ross Stripling relieved Baez, but he served up a bases-clearing double to Javier Baez, making it an 8-1 ballgame. Jason Heyward, as has often been the case, popped up feebly, mercifully ending the inning with the Cubs having hung up a five-spot.

Pedro Strop took over for Lester in the bottom of the eighth. He gave up a double to Andrew Toles, then hit Justin Turner to begin the inning. Though Strop was able to induce a ground ball double play from Corey Seager, Carlos Ruiz followed up with a double to left-center to push in a run. Howie Kendrick flied out to send the game to the ninth.

Closer Aroldis Chapman took over with a six-run lead in the bottom of the ninth. He issued a leadoff walk to Gonzalez, then served up a single to Yasiel Puig. Joc Pederson grounded out, but Josh Reddick knocked in Gonzalez and moved Puig to third with a single to center. Toles plated Puig with a sacrifice fly, making it 8-4. Turner grounded out to shortstop to end the game, finalizing the victory for the Cubs.

The two clubs will take Friday off to travel back to Chicago. Game 6 will take place at Wrigley Field at 8:00 PM EDT. Clayton Kershaw will start for the Dodgers opposite the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks.